Open House

Habitat for Humanity should be celebrating. Homes should be for sale to poor families in South Dade. New construction should be advancing. All stories should have happy endings.

Nina Betancourt strolls toward the skeleton of an unfinished house in an unfinished development called Jordan Commons, located in a community north of Homestead named Princeton. Once the site of the largest and most ambitious low-income housing project ever undertaken by any chapter of Habitat for Humanity, Jordan Commons now sits in tatters amid dust and weeds, a woeful example of grand aspirations sunk by infighting and egos.

In September 1995, volunteers began constructing frames and raising roofs for the first 15 of a planned 187 homes. Within months those houses should have been completed and occupied by economically disadvantaged families who had successfully sought and worked for the right to purchase them from the Homestead branch of Habitat for Humanity. Then the next phase of construction would commence. And then the next. And the next. Until the $22 million Jordan Commons was a reality.

It didn't work out that way.
Not one of the fifteen houses is complete, and several stand as little more than suggestions. As for the fifteen families who had expected to become homeowners, they are represented only by signs inscribed with their names and stuck in the ground.

Four years ago, when Homestead Habitat for Humanity applied for Dade County permits to subdivide a 40-acre parcel of land, grade roads, install sewer and water pipes, and construct the houses, Nina Betancourt led the local opposition to the project. She and her neighbors were familiar with Habitat homes in other parts of South Dade, and they didn't like what they saw: tiny wooden boxes bereft of any design features, the kind of structures easily identified as poor people's homes. "When we heard it was going to be a Habitat development," Betancourt recalls, "the neighbors were very concerned about what that meant."

The 41-year-old real estate broker and civic leader hosted community meetings at her home, where skeptical Princeton residents were able to pepper Habitat representatives with questions. Betancourt's opposition dissipated at those discussions as the Habitat people outlined their proposal to create a type of community that had never been built for the poor -- or the rich, for that matter. Contributing to the appeal: Each element of a Jordan Commons house -- frame, roof, windows, plumbing, solar water-heating -- would help families conserve energy; the placement of homes and the design of roads would minimize the need for automobiles; cooling shade trees would be planted by the thousands; amenities would include small parks, a gymnasium, and playing fields; and mothers would be able to walk to the Jordan Commons day-care center with their children and pick up groceries from a store at a community center on their way home in the evening. Recalls Betancourt: "There were those of us who said, 'Gee, a project of this magnitude is interesting because of the ideas they had for energy efficiency.'"

It takes only a few minutes for Betancourt to circle the cluster of nascent homes and construction rubble. Her concern is palpable. After all, she went from skeptic to believer, and was instrumental in fostering the community approval that allowed the project to proceed. Now it sits uneasily in a sort of development purgatory -- not exactly hell, but definitely not heaven, either.

Homestead Habitat for Humanity has offered no clear plan for completing these 15 shells, let alone the 170 additional planned homes. The money to do so is simply not there. Officials from Habitat's world headquarters -- known as Habitat for Humanity International -- say they will help bail out Homestead, but under their leadership Jordan Commons is likely to be scaled back. "Habitat for Humanity International is committed to completing the whole project," vows Millard Fuller, president of the globe-spanning Christian charity. "We are not saying to you that we are going to complete it the way it is now."

A millionaire lawyer, Fuller founded Habitat in 1976 in Americus, Georgia. His motive behind abandoning a lucrative career: to fulfill the Christian principle of loving one's neighbor. The charity's "ministry" is dedicated to the elimination of substandard housing. Some 1320 independent Habitat chapters worldwide have built 50,000 houses in the last two decades.

While Fuller initially embraced the innovative concept of Jordan Commons, he soon grew disaffected. He believed the houses were too big and too extravagant -- three bedrooms, two bathrooms, cathedral ceilings in some rooms, central air conditioning. (He doesn't even have central air in his own home.) The money for such luxuries, he felt, would be better spent building more houses. "You must always realize that the bulk of our support for the ministry comes from middle-income, middle-class people," Fuller wrote in a December 1993 letter to Homestead Habitat's executive director. "Many of them live in very modest houses themselves and they don't feel right building houses for 'the poor' if the houses being built are better than the houses they live in!"

That is precisely the type of thinking that worries Nina Betancourt and other residents in Princeton, where many homes are spacious and sit on two-acre estates. "If they downsize or modify this plan," she says, "it would be the community's worst nightmare come true. I'm talking about people in the community who never really compromised. There were those of us who were willing to give it a chance, but there were still those in the community telling us, 'You'll see, you'll see, it's a pipe dream.'"

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